By: Zack Schuler, founder and CEO of NINJIO
As daily life continues to migrate online, the need for cybersecurity is universal – no matter who you are, protecting yourself from the ever-evolving cyberthreats out there is becoming more important all the time. But some groups are more vulnerable than others, and seniors are at the top of this list. With Father’s Day quickly approaching, now is a great time to consider how dads (and all elderly parents) can get the benefits of being online while minimizing the risks.
Cybercriminals have always preyed on seniors, and this ugly enterprise has only become more common in the age of COVID-19. There are countless schemes involving pension funds, title and deed fraud, and other forms of deception and manipulation that are aimed directly at seniors who may not be accustomed to managing online accounts or interpreting digital information. This is why seniors are disproportionately likely to be the victims of a cyberattack.
Father’s Day is a time for appreciation, but it should also be an occasion to think of ways we can give back – like helping older parents take full advantage of all the digital resources available to them without having to worry about losing their money or identity to a cybercriminal.
Cyberattacks targeting seniors are on the rise
There are millions of elderly victims of fraud annually, and these schemes are increasingly originating online. Between 2013 and 2018, adults older than 60 in the United States suffered a 400 percent surge in cyberattacks with hundreds of millions of dollars in losses annually – a development which reflects international trends. Cyberattacks against seniors were already on the rise before the pandemic hit, but COVID-19 made the problem even worse.
According to the FBI, there were more than 105,000 reports of cyberattacks from victims over the age of 60 in 2020, with losses of almost $1 billion. This is a dramatic increase from previous years, and it prompted the FBI (in conjunction with the Department of Justice) to launch the Elder Justice Initiative – an effort to help the staggering 10 percent of older Americans who are the victims of fraud and abuse every year. Next year, the FBI will release its first-ever annual report dedicated to the growing threat of elder fraud.
As the U.S. government belatedly mobilizes to respond to the epidemic of cyberattacks against seniors, it’s important to remember that elderly victims of cybercrime in other countries often don’t have access to the same legal or financial resources as Americans. This is why cybersecurity is even more vital for seniors around the world.
Why seniors are uniquely vulnerable to cyberattacks
No matter how sophisticated technology becomes, cybercriminals’ favorite tool is always social engineering – a term which refers to coercive and manipulative tactics which convince victims to share sensitive information, transfer money, or do something else an attacker wants them to do. Anyone can fall for a social engineering scheme, but seniors’ lack of familiarity with digital methods of communication, payment, etc. put them at greater risk than the general population.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that seniors also tend to be more trusting than young people. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 71 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds think “most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance,” while 60 percent believe most people can’t be trusted – proportions that collapse to 39 percent and 29 percent, respectively, among respondents 65 or older. Meanwhile, almost three-quarters of 18 to 29-year-olds report that they’re “very confident” with electronic devices – a percentage that falls to just over a quarter for the 65-plus age bracket.
It’s no wonder that more than a third of seniors say someone has tried to scam them online, while 28 percent admit that they’ve downloaded a virus. As the number of seniors using technology like social media increases and cybercriminals devise new ways to deceive and defraud them, digital literacy and cybersecurity will only become more necessary.
How seniors can protect themselves
Seniors aren’t the only ones who fall victim to social engineering attacks – millions of people of all ages are targeted every year, and many of these attacks are successful. But addressing the crisis of cyberfraud against seniors requires us to identify the ways in which older computer users are susceptible to cyberattacks and how these vulnerabilities should inform measures to keep them safe. Here are a few of those vulnerabilities and strategies for addressing them:
- Seniors should always find the original source information. Many cyberattacks on seniors only succeed because they present what appears to be factual information from an ostensibly reliable source: a phony government email demanding immediate action, a fake credit card company asking for updated payment information, and so on. Instead of relying on the random email and text communications they receive, seniors should always go straight to the source, such as official websites for the government, financial services companies, and other organizations.
- Never provide sensitive information over email. Legitimate entities will have ways of accessing your personal accounts through their main websites and other formal channels of communication. While it’s sometimes necessary to provide personal information over the phone, always use the number provided on official secured websites. Be extremely wary of unsolicited phone calls.
- Don’t click on suspicious links. Phishing is one of the most common types of cyberattacks, and it works because victims click on malicious links without hovering their cursor over them to see where they lead or (better yet) avoiding them altogether and only navigating to legitimate websites. To take just one example: cybercriminals will use browser notifications urging them to take action with their bank accounts, but no bank will actually contact a customer this way.
- Use a password manager. Poor password hygiene is a ubiquitous problem among computer users of all ages, but it’s especially pervasive among seniors. Don’t give cybercriminals an open door to your sensitive personal information by using (and reusing) simple passwords which can be cracked.
Many seniors are still adjusting to the digital era – they’re far more likely to share false material online and they’re often targeted by cybercriminals who take advantage of anyone who doesn’t properly vet information, clicks before thinking, and provides sensitive data freely. But like anyone else, seniors – and yes, even dads who are still getting used to copying and pasting – just need the right training to be safe online.
Zack Schuler is the founder and CEO of NINJIO – a global cybersecurity awareness company that teaches employees and their families how not to get hacked. Beyond serving as the CEO of two successful tech startups (before NINJIO, he started Cal Net Technology Group out of the trunk of his car and grew it to $20 million in annual revenue), Zack is an authority on cybersecurity, employee engagement, and related tech issues. He has written for Forbes, HR Dive, Dark Reading, and many other outlets.